The one Silicon Valley company that protects your privacy the most -- Apple -- is the one that has customers who actually spend money, such as through the iTunes Store, App Store, and iBookstore. But even Apple uses the data it collects about you to optimize its offerings to its benefit where possible. The others, lacking something to sell you for actual money, have to milk you for even more, which is why they tend to sell your data to others, not just use it internally. Every time you sign up for a free service, you are agreeing to sell your private information, whether you truly understand that or not.
The big problem is that you don't really know what is being collected about you or how it's used. You certainly can't see it to decide what you want shared or to correct inaccuracies (such as when the babysitter surfs porn or doll-making on your computer). Legal language that's hard to find and hard to understand buries that disclosure in most cases -- often misleading users -- or simply asserts rights to everything. Think of how many stories you read in the last year about Web companies asserting ownership on any content you posted. Those are just the tip of the iceberg.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, has said that a new social norm has developed where people don't value privacy as they used to, but instead find greater value in sharing. That's true, but misleading. They find value in sharing what they want to share, not in being spied on and secretly milked as if they were drugged cattle. The Silicon Valley model is all about getting the sheep (you) to come into the ranch on your own and let yourself be milked in your comfy cyber stall every minute of every day. That way, you sell yourself cheap and let them make the money from the value you bring -- a value you're kept ignorant of so that you don't realize how much you're giving away to feather their nests.
Signs that users and thus governments are waking up to the reality of privacy invasion
This all sounds pretty dire, doesn't it? Especially if you use Google (or anyone's) Search, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Gmail, Outlook.com/Hotmail, Google Now, and pretty much any free Web service. The good news is that people seem to be waking up, and even the American government -- notorious for not caring about these issues -- is taking some action.
Here's evidence of a potential change in users' views on their personal data being strip-mined:
- Microsoft's "Scroogled" ad campaign calling out some of Google's privacy-invading business practices shows that marketers -- whose job it is to keep up on what people care about -- see pro-privacy messages as a good business strategy. (Never mind Microsoft follows some of the same practices that its ads decry.)
- A recent Ovum study of people in 11 countries shows privacy-invasion fears are growing. Ovum even warned Internet firms they would need to "rebalance" their approach to strip-mining users' data given the growing concerns.
- A new revision to the U.S. Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations governing how patient data is kept private has made it harder for hospitals to use medical records in big data analyses to uncover the most effective treatments or find health risks that may be undetected. Ironically, the effects of this change are bad, and its goals could have been as easily accomplished without losing the positive results of the analysis simply by requiring that all such data be anonymized.
- The Federal Trade Commission has urged app developers and app stores to take better care of users' private data. Most will ignore the FTC guidelines, but at some point such defiance is likely to lead to actual laws; a proposal for one such law is already circulating in the House. The state of California recently issued guidelines to mobile developers over user privacy -- and privacy law is an area where other states typically look to California to lead.
- The European Union continues to aggressively review potential privacy violations by the big tech and Internet businesses, calling out bad behavior publicly and forcing changes on them (Google and Facebook are perennial targets, but the EU is now also looking at Microsoft). U.S.-based multinational businesses chafe, but users should cheer the EU on as the only dependable ally in the fight for their privacy.